Monthly Archives: January 2007

M.B.A. Recruiters' No. 1 Pet Peeve: Poor Writing and Speaking Skills

So say recruiters in the Wall Street Journal’s career site:

"It is staggering the frequency of typos, grammatical errors and poorly constructed thoughts we see in emails that serve as letters of introduction," says Mr. Aisenbrey. "We still see a tremendous amount of email from students who are writing to the recruiter like they are sending a message to a friend asking what they are doing that evening."

It’s a balancing act: while you want to maintain some level of professionalism in communications, you also don’t want to bounce to the other extreme which is MBA jargon-speak.

If I think of the evolution of my own writing style, it started with casual, IM kind of talk (not good), then when I started my business I bounced to the lawyerly / ultra professional tone (also not good), and now I strive for somewhere in the middle: casually authoritative.

I write as if I’m wearing jeans and a collared shirt, not a ripped t-shirt and shorts, or tuxedo and bow tie.

Breakthrough Ideas for 2007

Harvard Business Review presented 20 breakthrough ideas for 2007 (free). Here are my favorites.

1. The Accidental Influentials

Duncan J. Watts

In his best seller The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell argues that “social epidemics” are driven in large part by the actions of a tiny minority of special individuals. The idea seems intuitively right—we think we see it happening all the time. Nevertheless, this isn’t actually how ideas spread. It’s better to focus on getting enough plain, ordinary people to sign on.

2. Entrepreneurial Japan

Yoshito Hori

Japan’s economic rebound is generally attributed to the turnaround of corporate giants and to industry consolidation. But it is also fueled by the emergence of new companies led by entrepreneurs in their twenties and thirties. An entrepreneurial Japan—no longer an oxymoron—may ultimately overshadow the much touted start-up cultures of China and India.

5. The Leader from Hope

Harry Hutson and Barbara Perry

Most business leaders shy away from the word “hope.” Yet hope has been shown to be the key ingredient of resilience in survivors of traumas ranging from prison camps to natural disasters. So if you are an executive trying to lead an organization through change, know that hope can be a potent force in your favor. And it’s yours to give.

6. An Emerging Hotbed of User-Centered Innovation< Eric von Hippel

Most countries, developing and developed alike, view innovation as a vital input to their economic growth and spend varying portions of their national budgets to support it in companies and research labs, for the ultimate benefit of essentially passive consumers. Denmark is taking a different tack: It’s making “user-centered innovation” a national priority.

7. Living with Continuous Partial Attention

Linda Stone

“Continuous partial attention”—distinct from multitasking—is an adaptive behavior that presumably allows us to keep pace with the never-ending bandwidth technology offers. Now there are signs of a backlash against the tyranny of tantalizing choices.

9. When to Sleep on It

Ap Dijksterhuis

Use your conscious mind to acquire all the information you need to arrive at a difficult decision, but don’t try to analyze it. Instead, go on holiday and let your unconscious mind digest the information for a day or two. Whatever your intuition then tells you is almost certainly going to be the best choice.

11. Innovation and Growth: Size Matters

Geoffrey B. West

Newfound general mathematical relationships between population size, innovation, and wealth creation challenge the conventional wisdom that smaller innovation functions are more inventive. They may explain why few organizations today have matched the creativity of a giant like Bell Labs in its heyday.

12. Conflicted Consumers

Karen Fraser

Your customer data indicate strong consumer satisfaction: Repeat purchase levels are high, and many customers have been with you for years. Good news, right? Well, appearances can be deceptive. Buried in the data may be a “stealth” segment of apparently loyal customers whose ethical concerns make them ready to bolt as soon as an alternative emerges.

15. Act Globally, Think Locally

Yoko Ishikura

Companies are usually told to “think globally and act locally.” But thanks to their own global information systems and the Internet, knowledge from faraway places can be acquired relatively easily and cheaply. This means that firms have to discover and quickly incorporate good ideas from these diverse sources before their rivals do.

19. In Defense of “Ready, Fire, Aim”

Clay Shirky

The bulk of open source projects fail, and most of the remaining successes are quite modest. Still, open systems are a profound threat to many businesses, not only because they outsucceed commercial firms but, more important, because they outfail them.

(Hat tip: Renee Blodgett)

An Epic Ping Pong Match – The World's Largest Participation Sport

For the first time in months today I played Ping-Pong, one of my noblest passions, and almost immediately felt at one with the paddle, and discovered a sense of focus on the ball that I apply to few other pursuits. The person on the other side of the table was Jonah Spear, a member of the cast of STOMP, the musical / theater production. His brother Josh lives here in Boulder and connected us. Thanks guys!

What I love about ping-pong is everyone seems to play on some cruddy table in their attic or basement, or once a year at a summer camp. Don’t be misled, however: Ping-Pong is the world’s largest participation sport, according to the International Olympic Committee, with hundreds of millions casual players and some 40 million competitive players. Below is a picture of me in action and below the picture is a heated email exchange Jonah and I had leading up the match. Who said you can’t talk dirty before a game of ping-pong?

Pingpong


To: Ben
From: Jonah

Subject: Ping Pong Buddies?

Hi Ben,

Enjoyed learning a bit about you in your blog- fascinating indeed. My brother Josh tells me you like to play ping pong. I also like to play ping pong.  Actually, I love it.  Funny thing is, the table at the summer camp I’ve been playing at for the past 10 years is home made, a bit wider than normal ones and 6 inches higher… and we have old old beat up paddles. And I play with 12 year olds.

But I can hold my own.

Anyways, Josh showed me you wrote something about tomorrow or sunday. anytime sounds good to me. 

Look forward to it,

Jonah

To: Jonah
From: Ben
Re: Ping Pong Buddies

Jonah,

We have a shared passion….and I like you have played on shitty tables against poor opponents. But I have the mental ferocity of a tiger. 🙂

My condo at [address redacted] has a table and paddles.

How about we get together Sunday? I have a 6 PM dinner and am otherwise free. How about we get a sandwich at noon somewhere on the Pearl Street Mall (I need to buy the paper anyway) and then walk back and get a few games in?

To: Ben
From: Jonah
Re: Ping Pong Buddies

Hi Ben,

Sunday sounds great. Sounds like I’ll have to carb up Saturday night and grab a protein shake on Sunday morning on the way to P-St. Mall… I’ll let Josh get back to you with a place but I reckon the Kitchen makes good grub.

See you Sunday,

Champ

To: Jonah
From: Ben
Re: Ping Pong Buddies

Jonah,

Sounds good, I’ll wait to hear from Josh. If you’re carboloading, I guess I’ll have to do 10 extra triceps pulldowns at the gym today.

Regards,

The Dominator

To: Ben
From: Jonah
Re: Ping Pong Rivals

Dear Friend,

Be careful at the gym- I don’t want you to be worn out for the match.  I can’t bear excuses like, "my triceps are sore from doing 10 extra pulldowns."  I on the other hand will spend the day in meditation- and I’m also calling my friend in the Caribbean, the witch doctor.  We have extra sharp needles for punks like you.

If you find yourself doubled over in pain at the gym, it could be one of three things: butterflies in your stomach about the match, too many pulldowns, or my good friend Doctah Priscilla.

Going to get a blood transfusion and hang at the oxygen bar now. Enjoy your pride while you still have it intact 🙂

Second to none,

Spear

To: Jonah
From: Ben
Re: Ping Pong Rivals

Jonah,

When I look at you I see such a scared man. I see a child. I see a boy who has wandered into a darkened movie theater, late, looking for his mommy.

6′ 4" 220 lbs,

Ben

To: Ben
From: Jonah
Re: Ping Pong Rivals

I am the middle aged man, you are the little girl.  I am the wolf and you are a cute little bunny.  I have facial hair and chest hair and you have peach fuzz and pimples.  And the movie my mommy took me to was called Terminator.

High Noon it is.

5′ 4" 150 lbs,

Big Bad

You Can Only Measure 3% of What Matters

I read that quote in The Fifth Discipline, a book I’m reading now.

How true. I track my activities pretty intensely and always try to focus on how I will measure the outcome of some task. Sometimes it’s as easy as, "What will success look like for this?"

The problem is not everything is easily measured. I recall a conversation I had on a train in Florence with a school teacher and we got into a long conversation about education. My big takeaway was, "How do you measure the effectiveness of schools?" There are a million criteria you could use.

In general, I think we have a tendency to discount intangible benefits in a traditional cost/benefit analysis. For example, when a start-up tries to recruit a new CEO from a large corporation, it can be hard to articulate the intangible benefits of running a start-up: few people to manage, total flexibility on scheduling, no bureaucracy etc. Unfortunately, these intangibles are often dismissed in compensation discussions because they’re not as easy to measure as "$10k more in comp," even though I would argue these intangibles contribute more to quality of life than a few thousand extra dollars.

On a related note, Tom Peters just posted a nine minute audioblog on metrics which I found quite engaging and he notes that "metrics are essential but useless". It’s what you do that matters, not how thoroughly you track what you do.

Book Short: Anonymous Lawyer

Anonymous Lawyer by Jeremy Blachman is simply hilarious. It’s a satirical novel written in the form of blog entries and internal emails by a hiring partner at a big LA law firm. A must-read for anyone in a law firm or considering that career path. Here’s the fake law firm’s web site. Here’s one of the first blog entries:

I see you. I see you walking by my office, trying to look like you have a reason to be there. But you don’t. I see you sneak by at lunchtime, when you know my secretary will be away. You think I’m naive, but I know what you’re doing. But she’s my secretary, not yours, and her candy belongs to me, not you. And if I have a say in whether or not you ever become partner at this firm — and trust me, I do — I’m not going to forget this.

And stop stealing my stapler, too. I shouldn’t have to go wandering the halls looking for a stapler. I’m a partner at a half-billion dollar law firm. Staplers should be lining up at my desk, begging for me to use them. Go back to your office — I need you to count the number of commas in this three-foot-tall stack of paper. I don’t want to see you in the hall for at least another sixteen hours. Remember: I can make or break you. I hold your future in my hands. I decide whether you get a view of the ocean or a view of the dumpster. This isn’t a game. Get back to work. My secretary. My stapler. MY CANDY.

(Thanks to Brad Feld for buying this for me.)

My Personal Finance Infrastructure

Over the past year I’ve thought a lot about personal finance. Here’s what I concluded:

a) Money is not the main driver in what I do.

b) If given the choice between being rich versus not being rich, I’d rather be rich.

c) If there are easy things I can do in the spirit of goal (b), I want to be doing them.

When I turned 18 I became eligible for many financial programs and, with the guidance of friend Ramit Sethi, I moved quickly to put into a place a personal finance infrastructure that suits my needs. Below are the details.

1. Short Term Cash Needs — I use a free Wells Fargo checking account that gives me ATM access anywhere in the Western U.S. I keep less than $1,000 in this account because it doesn’t earn any interest.

2. Medium Term Cash Needs — I park medium term money in ING Direct, a high interest savings account. ING gives me fantastic interest and links with my Wells account so I can transfer money online back and forth easily. So if I need to move money from my ING to Wells, it happens within 24 hours. ING doesn’t have ATMs in the U.S., but that’s OK. I just want my money to grow here. If you want to set up an ING account, email me, because I have a special referral code that will earn you free money.

3. Long Term Cash — This is cash I don’t plan on touching for 8-10 years. I want to regularly deposit money into this account. Since I have a long time horizon, I can invest this money more aggressively because in the long run the market should go up by 8-9%. So, I’m willing to endure ups and downs with this money in the short term.

I believe much of the money market industry is bullshit. The idea that mutual fund managers can pick the "right" stocks is baloney, since many mutual funds fail to beat the S&P 500 market average in the long run. Furthermore, if "experts" can’t pick the right stocks, I sure as hell can’t, and I have no intellectual interest in tracking the market on a weekly or monthly basis, nor do I want to spend the time researching specific stocks. So, I invest my long term cash in Vanguard index funds. Currently I own the Vanguard S&P 500 index fund and the Vanguard Total International index fund (it matches Europe, Asia, and developing markets index funds). I’m looking for the broadest, most diverse exposure. If you don’t know what index funds are, research them online.

Ramit is fond of saying, "Do you want to be sexy or do you want to be rich?" If you want to be rich — like him and me — avoid the hoopla over the daily market’s ups and downs, and consider index funds for long-term investing.

4. Retirement Money — I have a Roth 401k through Comcate (employer). Note that the Roth 401k is a new instrument and is different than a traditional 401k. The Roth is geared to younger investors in lower tax brackets. In a traditional 401k you make contributions from your paycheck taxfree but are taxed when you take it out at retirement. With the Roth, I pay taxes now but can take it out tax free (when I’ll be at a higher bracket). I try to put as much as possible into the 401k — after all, every dollar I put in now will be worth around $9 (adjusted for inflation) when I retire. How do I invest the Roth 401k? I bought Vanguard’s "Target 2050 Retirement" life-cycle fund, which is a 90/10 equities/bonds mix and it automatically adjusts that ratio to become less volatile as you age.

I also have a Roth IRA.

5. Credit Cards — I use two credit cards, and I use them a lot because it’s easier to track my expenses with a credit card. The first is Capital One Hassle Free card. It’s the only card you can use internationally without extra surcharge. I earn one "neutral" airline mile for each dollar spent (it can be applied to a variety of airlines). The upside to an airline specific card is you earn status points such as free upgrades or airport club access. The downside is you incur a significant lock-in effect with that airline. I know many dissatisfied United Airlines customers who still fly there because they have so many miles. The second card I use is a MasterCard Direct Rewards card. I use this for gas, groceries, or drug stores, since I get 2% cash back on these kinds of purchases. Many young investors use debit instead of credit — I think this is a mistake assuming you’re a responsible person. You want to establish credit and get rewards points.

How do you think about personal finance?

Spice Up Your Routine in the Gym

To continue my fledgling health / fitness series, today I’m going to cover the importance of diversity in your fitness efforts.

This is intuitive. If we do anything over and over again we get bored. Keeping your workouts fresh and interesting (just like your life!) is essential for being happy at the gym. When it comes to exercise, however, there’s another important reason to mix up your routine: you don’t want to overwork some muscles and let other muscles languish.

Since your workout should ideally contain some cardio and some weights, let’s look at how we can be creative in each category.

Cardio. If you always run on the treadmill for thirty minutes, do it for 20 minutes and ride the stationary bike for 10 minutes. The elliptical is another good cardio alternative that doesn’t pressure your knees much. Treadmill, bike, and elliptical are the three main cardio options. Try each. The advantage to the bike, by the way, is you can read while riding. I listen to music on treadmill or elliptical.

Weights. This is more complicated, but still easy. The goal here is to identify your major muscle groups and vary the exercises which target each group. The easy way to diversify is to sometimes use machine weights and sometimes use free weights. Machine weights are easier to handle and can offer resistance all the way through a rep. Free weights allow more customization and build “stability” muscle fibers. If you’re traveling and in a foreign gym, always use free weights because free weights are the same around the world. Machine weights require proper settings in order to be effective (and not injurious) and if you’re traveling it takes too long to find the appropriate setting.

The muscle groups I care about are: upper back, lower back, chest, abs, quads, calves, and hamstrings. Note that this is not all about looks. Even if you don’t care about being muscle-bound, lifting weights is still recommended by doctors even for older people. The free-weight exercises I do:

  • Flat bench press — This is the classic exercise which works your chest, biceps, and triceps all at once. It’s the best total workout. Note: Many women do chest exercises to increase their bust, but it’s best to use a machine for this and not free weights.
  • Incline bench press — This works your upper chest. Don’t forget to bring the bar right under your chin.
  • Lat pulldown — This works your upper back.
  • Lat row — This targets your lower back and general back thickness.
  • Leg press — The classic leg exercise which works your quads and hips.
  • Hamstring curl — Works the back of your leg — aka your hamstring.
  • Toe lifts — Calves.
  • Abs — Instead of using a crunch machine, I just do crunches and leg raises to work the abs.

All these exercises have machine equivalents.

Finally, in addition to alternating between machine and free-weight, you might also experiment with second tier muscle groups. For example, I’ve been doing a forearm exercise and liking it quite a bit.

Bottom Line: It’s more fun / interesting when you spice up your routine, and it also makes health sense to make sure you’re exercising your entire body.

The Science of Greatness, Talent, and Giftedness

David Schenk, the author of The Immortal Game (see my review), has launched a blog called The Genius in All of Us based around a new book he’s writing on "How science is unveiling a rich new understanding of talent, "giftedness," and brilliance — and the lessons we can all apply to our own lives."

If his early posts are any indication, this will be a fascinating and stimulating blog to read.

His post on the Narrowness of Greatness notes that although chess can enhance concentration, patience, and perseverance, sharpen evaluation skills, enhance "process feedback," and improve "calibration" (a person’s self-perception of his or her own ability) when researchers look closely at what makes truly great chess players great, they don’t find a similar carry-over into other tasks.

His post on Gifted and Talented School Programs notes that although IQ predicts one’s ability at symbolic logic and overall life success,

I.Q. does not identify most "talents" or special abilities — and absolutely does not enable us to predict who will grow up to become extraordinary scientists, musicians, teachers, leaders, or athletes. It predicts general success, but not greatness.

Schenk is also engaging in lively debate in the comments to these posts. If you’re interested in cog science, talent, IQ, or simply what makes some people great and not simply good, I recommend following this blog.

(Hat tip to Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics)

The Marketing Secrets of Marc Benioff

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, is a brilliant marketing exec. In this short, punchy interview in Forbes, he shares his secrets, which I found interesting. A sampling:

  • Always pitch the bigger picture. Salesforce.com was about "the end of software," not customer relationship management software or software as a service.
  • Before you start talking to the media, get ahold of your metaphor. This isn’t a sound bite. It is a metaphor that is easy to understand. Salesforce.com’s AppExchange is the eBay of enterprise software; AppStore is the iTunes. Early on, Salesforce.com was Amazon.com meets Siebel Systems.
  • But back then [the 90’s], if you didn’t throw a party, you were a no one. It was not a strategy. It is, though, an example of how tactics do dictate strategy. A successful tactic executed a number of different ways becomes a great strategy.
  • For our big event, Dreamforce, I’ll get my messaging together over several months. I do dry runs in front of eight to 10 customers. I don’t just get on stage and start shooting. I’ve edited my ideas again and again.
  • We realized that companies had gone entirely digital with media kits. So we decided to do the opposite. We started mailing our press kits and throwing in a bonus. The football, the potato head. Everyone loves chocolate, so we mailed out chocolate–and the good stuff, not junk. People open our press kits for free chocolate.

Revenge of the Liberal Arts Graduates?

Geoffrey Moore, author of the pathbreaking and essential business book Crossing the Chasm, just blogged about the Davos ’07 theme "The Shifting Power Equation." Moore says:

The shift from computing to communications also has profound implications for the redistribution of power. As the Internet continues to work its transformation of the globe, the single most powerful force it is unleashing is memes, that class of ideas that are uniquely able to capture people’s imaginations and shape their behavior. Some of these memes are inspiring and uplifting (think spirituality and altruism), some are crass and banal (advertising and, yes, much blogging), and others are dark and pernicious (sexual exploitation and suicide bombing). All are vying for a commitment from each of us, and when we give that commitment, we give it for free and put all our life energy behind it. That is what makes memes so powerful.

The ability both to create and promulgate such memes and to recognize when a meme is acting upon you or one of your constituents is core to being effective in this new reality. A connected world places an enormous premium on people who are fluent in communications: expressing ideas, positioning offers, inferring power relationships, decoding nuances, deflecting the manipulations of others. We are witnessing the rise of the articulate and the marginalization of the inarticulate, whether in our political and business leaders or in our leading brands and most favored Internet sites.

 

In sume, if the past few decades were heralded as the revenge of the nerds, the next few will be the revenge of the liberal arts graduates.

I basically agree.

As a side note, however, I do believe that notwithstanding "this new reality," as Moore says, liberal arts degrees are not for everyone. Despite the fact that my entire family has been educated at liberal arts colleges, and I myself am heading for one, I still am a fan of vocational schools and specialized degrees. The fact is a lot of people would be better off if they went to a vocational school after high school instead of straight into the workforce. Unfortunately, vocational schools are often demeaned, especially by intellectuals. This Wall Street Journal op/ed notes:

A reality about the job market must eventually begin to affect the valuation of a college education: The spread of wealth at the top of American society has created an explosive increase in the demand for craftsmen. Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason–the list goes on and on–is difficult, and it is a seller’s market. Journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution while master craftsmen can make six figures. They have work even in a soft economy. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India. And the craftsman’s job provides wonderful intrinsic rewards that come from mastery of a challenging skill that produces tangible results. How many white-collar jobs provide nearly as much satisfaction?

This is similar in theme to the wonderful essay called "Shopclass as Soulcraft," (called one of the best essays of the year by David Brooks) which is about a guy who left his job at a think tank to be a car mechanic — and found it more stimulating and challenging on every front.